Printer icon Print Page
Centre for the North Blog

Put Northerners' Interests at Forefront of Northern Development

Jun 17, 2015
Adam Fiser
Adam Fiser
Senior Research Associate
Northern and Aboriginal Policy
Brent DowDall

Senior Writer
Forecasting and Analysis Division

Many of Canada’s pressing socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges are at their most intense in the North. Blessed with natural resource endowments, the North has lots of potential for economic growth. But this does not mean that natural resource development automatically leads to sustainable Northern community development. How we prepare and plan for growth in the North will largely determine how that growth benefits Northerners for generations to come.

This reality presents one fundamental question: How can all partners in Northern development successfully plan for economic growth in a way that is sustainable and beneficial to the peoples of the North—today and in the future?

Initiating and sustaining a broad-based response to that question has been a mission of The Conference Board of Canada since 2009. The recently-published compendium report of the Centre for the North, Building a Resilient and Prosperous North, affirms that the challenges to overcome are complex and interrelated, but they are not insurmountable.

Meeting these challenges requires, broadly, an acceptance of the unique realities of the North. Not only are Northern and Southern Canada vastly different, but the provincial and territorial Northern regions themselves vary in terms of geography and climate, demographics and culture, economic resources and business potential, and governance structures and public services, to name just a few.

Like all Canadians, Northerners value a secure Canadian Arctic. But the security dimensions that matter to Northerners have less to do with issues of national sovereignty and more to do with the challenges their communities face to meet basic needs, and anticipate and adapt to adversity—be it economic, social, political, or environmental. This concern forms the backbone of strategies to create a more resilient North. Such strategies will also do much to advance Canada's Arctic sovereignty by strengthening the communities that occupy its frontier.

The Conference Board of Canada's economic forecasts show that the mining and resource development outlook in many Northern regions remains promising, if unpredictable. Several mines have opened in recent years across the territories and in the Northern regions of several provinces. Over the next five years, additional mines are expected to boost mining output sharply. At the same time, other Northern regions are struggling to respond to the closure of mines that formed the economic backbone of their communities. Without a diversified economic base and options to remobilize, many workers and businesses in these communities will be forced to leave.

Reaping the benefits of Northern economic development opportunities requires foresight and planning. They also cannot be fully realized without placing the interests of Northerners and Aboriginal peoples at the forefront. A majority of Northerners welcome resource development projects when they are implemented in a sustainable manner. Northerners recognize that major projects have positive effects on Northern economies; auxiliary industries—such as services and construction—benefit from the increased level of activity.

Moving Forward: Three Priorities

Putting Northern interests at the forefront of policy, business, and community decision-making requires a focus on the vital factors that will lead to success for Northerners. The research of the Centre for the North has found three high-priority areas to focus efforts to build a resilient and prosperous North—Aboriginal youth, infrastructure renewal, and governance. Each of these high-priority areas is a critical success factor for Canadian Northern development. Moreover, as the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board (NAEDB) highlighted in its latest Aboriginal economic progress report, a clearer focus on Aboriginal youth, infrastructure, and governance would generally benefit Canada's Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal Youth

The health and success of Aboriginal youth are, as former Prime Minister Paul Martin recently said, a moral issue for Canada. Many Northern Aboriginal youth face intense life stressors and severe health and wellness challenges. In addition to experiencing personal hardship, Aboriginal youth often have limited access to the education and skills-development programs they need for successful employment in their Northern regions. At the same time, Northern employers, across multiple sectors, report that they struggle to attract, develop, and retain skilled workers.

Tackling the challenges that Aboriginal youth face in achieving their potential involves an enormously complex range of interdependent issues—notably housing, educational opportunities, civic engagement, and cultural preservation. Providing early childhood interventions and family services are essential first steps, but these must be part of a continuity of support that nurtures the child's growth into a healthy adolescent and responsible adult.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure renewal is a second high-priority area. The inadequate state of regional and community infrastructure—not only roads, airports, and ports, but also telecommunications, broadband Internet, and community facilities—threatens Northern sustainability and prosperity. Building infrastructure will be costly, which calls for open and creative approaches to financing that include public, private, and non-profit stakeholders—both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. In addition to the need for financial resources, it will be important to direct financing options to the right kinds of projects. Above all, this means identifying and financing infrastructure projects and plans with strong economic, social, and environmental returns on investment.

Governance

Planning and implementing effective solutions to Northern challenges require effective governance. Increasingly, the balance of Northern governance has shifted to community, regional, and Aboriginal governments. While liberating for Northerners, the forces shaping this third high-priority area also put increasing pressure on their capacity to administer Northern public services and plan for the future. Local community champions have many of the solutions to Northern problems in health, education, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable economic development. But Northern leaders have a more fundamental problem: on any given day, there is simply too much to do and not enough people to do the work. Northern governments are still implementing decisions made 20 or more years ago—which often includes basic services—leaving little time to prepare for future growth opportunities in a timely way. Furthermore, Northern policy-making exists in a "politics of smallness"; thus program development and evaluation at provincial and federal levels need to account for the realities of Northern Canadian life.

Good governance is a critical success factor in ensuring that all the necessary stakeholders of Northern development cooperate and contribute their best to solving the complex challenges at hand. More fundamentally, the capacity of Northerners to self-govern must be given careful consideration, and they must have sufficient resources to do so.

Canada's North is a region of great beauty and promise. It is also fraught with economic, environmental, and social risks. Ensuring that communities can seize opportunities as well as survive and adapt to challenges will help them prosper and grow. This, in turn, will enable Canada to move forward as a Northern nation by solidifying its sovereignty, improving its security, and realizing its economic potential in the North.

Related Webinar

Reconciliation and Relationships: Building the Basis
of Productive Corporate-Aboriginal Relations

The Conference Board of Canada, June 24, 2015 at 03:00 PM EDT


Photo of the Northern lights


Contact Us

Stefan Fournier
Associate Director, Northern and Aboriginal Policy
613-526-3090x449
Email imagestefan.fournier@conferenceboard.ca